What Keir Starmer can learn from the failure of Jo Swinson

The former Lib Dem leader shows what happens when seemingly safe bets go wrong. Starmer can avoid this fate—if he’s careful

February 14, 2020
Photo: Lauren Hurley/EMPICS Entertainment
Photo: Lauren Hurley/EMPICS Entertainment

Constituency Labour parties around the country are returning Keir Starmer as their nomination to be the next Labour leader. Starmer’s heady rise is partly down to members projecting onto him what they want the party to be: to the left he is the person who stayed loyal to Jeremy Corbyn and will continue his legacy, to others he’s a firm centrist whose style owes more to Tony Blair than to his former boss. He has sold himself as a unifier: “It’s up to us. If we pull together we can be part of history,” he said in Newsnight’s Labour hustings on Wednesday night.

Is he up to the challenge? He might aim to be a new Neil Kinnock but for a more useful comparison we have to look outside the party altogether, to another leader who started with hopes of high office. Starmer could end up being Labour’s Jo Swinson.

Swinson was a seemingly sensible choice for the Lib Dems, competent, well qualified and good with detail. She could draw support from around the party, and speak to the base. She had experience, having served as a minister in the coalition. But the more the public saw of her, the less they wanted to. Starmer’s similarly stiff style could torpedo his popularity with a public hungry for a political entertainer.

On paper Starmer has a great pitch. He has his own impressive CV, having served as Director of Public Prosecutions for five years, work which earned him a knighthood. His track record of defending human rights indicates a powerful sense of justice, and he’s gifted with a sharp intellect (and haircut). Starmer is presentable in a way Corbyn could never be. Many members are excited to vote for someone who promises to end the torturous divisions of recent years.

But is this the election-winning formula for Labour? What of his capacity as a salesman, as someone who can reach back into areas Labour has lost and revive the emotions that the party once inspired? Similar questions weren’t asked enough by Lib Dem members during Swinson’s campaign. Is this person relatable? How do they cope when the intense glare of a TV studio light is on them? Starmer may be able to work the Commons chamber, but the jury is still out on whether he can command attention and authority in a room of normal people. Swinson crumbled under scrutiny on Prime Minister’s Question Time during the election.

Starmer is described as decent, intelligent, and principled in focus groups. It’s difficult to quibble with those. But the same voters see him as corporate, easy in a room full of high-powered people. Perhaps worst of all they describe him as “dull.” I’ve been told by supporters of the former Brexit Secretary that they think he looks “pained” and “not 100 per cent relaxed” during questioning by journalists. In an election campaign, candidates face a barrage of exhaustive debates and interrogation: there is a question mark over whether Starmer, for fear of saying the wrong thing, will retreat into bland legal monologues, leaving voters to be charmed by Johnson’s love of the lens and memorable turn of phrase.

Relying on what candidates push on social media is dangerous: they can publish as many clips of endearing exchanges with six-year-olds as they like. It’s not fair to say that Starmer can’t perform under pressure—he’s been calm and legalistic during the Brexit process. But what people look for from a minister is very different from what they look for in the leader of their country. Johnson’s positive attitude and cavalier spirit lifted the national mood at the precise moment Britain went to the polls. Starmer has been propelled into prime position in the Labour leadership race, yet his ability to read and exploit the electorate’s emotions and desires is untested.

The same could be said for each candidate, and there’s no real way of knowing for sure how each would grow into the role of leader. But if Starmer wants to prove he can beat Johnson, he needs to show he’s learnt a lesson from the 2019 election: that it helps to look as if you’re enjoying yourself.